Lawmakers move forward with plan to possibly merge College of Charleston, MUSC

  • Posted: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 9:00 p.m., Updated: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 5:17 p.m.

A small group of state legislators plans to push forward a bill to create a research university in the Lowcountry, despite resistance from the head of the Medical University of South Carolina's Board of Trustees.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said he and other Lowcountry lawmakers plan to file legislation in the upcoming session to begin the process of merging the College of Charleston with MUSC.

There's a great deal of support for the plan in the community, Merrill said. Business leaders are on board, he said, and the city of Charleston as well as Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester county leaders are receptive. And the College of Charleston has been working to make the plan a reality, he said.

But MUSC is proving to be a roadblock. "The most difficult group to deal with right now is MUSC's board," Merrill said. "We have been less than impressed with the majority of the board's willingness to discuss this issue."

MUSC Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Stephenson said he disagrees with that characterization.

"We have formed a committee and actively met with the college on numerous occasions about collaboration," Stephenson said. "We're in the process of trying to find a new president to lead our almost 13,000 employees and $2 billion budget. If we get distracted by a merger during that process, I'm afraid it will hinder both efforts."

The College of Charleston also is searching for a new leader to replace George Benson, who will step down in June.

Stephenson said there is "little or no synergy" between the institutions, and that the College of Charleston doesn't bring worthwhile assets for MUSC to the table.

He added that while many parties say they support a merger, the process is much more complex and involved than most people realize.

"Most people don't understand it," he said.

In a statement, Benson said he would be interested in collaboration and a merger, but he prefers the merger.

The local economy has taken off in recent years, he said, leaving many education and research needs unmet.

For example, Benson said, the state does not allow the College of Charleston to offer research doctorates, while MUSC is limited by state law to offering only degrees in health fields.

Previous efforts to ensure closer cooperation between the schools have not been particularly effective or successful, Benson said. "MUSC and the College of Charleston are separated by only two city blocks, yet they maintain separate police forces, purchasing offices, faculty, and degree programs," he said. "These two institutions should not be operating as independent state agencies."

Merrill said he, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, have met about the plan.

Stavrinakis and Harrell attended a December MUSC Board of Trustees meeting to encourage the board to pursue a possible merger of the schools. Stavrinakis' brother, Michael, was appointed to the MUSC board by the Legislature last year.

While the idea of creating a "University of Charleston" has been bandied about for years, the concept took a more concrete form when Charleston Mayor Joe Riley convened a series of meetings last spring, inviting community stakeholders to weigh in on the issue.

Since then, the schools formed a group to further explore the logistics of a potential collaboration or merger. The group laid out some of the advantages and disadvantages of a merger in a 16-page white paper published in August, which included references to other institutions that have recently merged, like the University of Toledo and Medical University of Ohio.

Merrill said he is not sure exactly what their proposed bill will include. It could be very general. For instance, it could direct leaders from both schools to come up with a plan and merge within the next three years.

It also could be specific, clearly defining the makeup of a new board and the programs that would be offered at the merged school.

"We're committed to getting a working research university for the Lowcountry," Merrill said.

Stephenson said MUSC is more than willing to continue studying the issue with the College of Charleston, acknowledging that the ultimate decision will have to be made by the General Assembly.

"We are a creature of the Legislature. If the Legislature believes in its wisdom that these two institutions have to be merged, we will make the best of it," he said. "I would not be doing my duty, however, if I did not point out the grave reservations concerning a merger without all the deliberation necessary to determine if that is the correct thing to do."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich; reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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